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Britain’s food revolution hits Tokyo

by Alex Dutson

Special To The Japan Times

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that, generally speaking, English meals are bad.” So begins Nozomu Hayashi’s best-selling 1991 treatise on British food, “Igirisu wa Oishi” (“England is Delicious”).

As comments go, this one is relatively mild. After all, it has long been fashionable in Japan to deride British cooking, to the point where it’s practically a requirement for anyone who wishes to be seen as having good taste. My wife’s family believes that more or less the entire stock of British cooking is bad — and they’re not alone. They also suspect that my own affection for it is due to either willful ignorance or deeply ingrained cultural associations.

It’s not that I haven’t tried to change their minds. I’ve mentioned the fresh blackberries and strawberries, crumbly Wensleydale cheese stuffed with apricots, plump oysters from the coast, the delights of smoked mackerel, and the wonders bestowed upon pork belly when it is roasted low and slow on top of apples and eaten alongside its curly roof of crackling.

The simple fact is that Britain today is a very different place from what it was in 1970s and ’80s. It is home to over 150 Michelin-starred restaurants and some of the world’s most exciting chefs: Heston Blumenthal, Gordon Ramsay, the ever-popular Jamie Oliver. Television cookery shows such as “The Great British Bake Off” and “MasterChef” have dialed up the average Brit’s interest in and knowledge of home cooking. There’s also a flourishing street food scene — one that was almost nonexistent a decade ago — where you can get local standards such as smoked haddock scotch eggs or classic custard tarts.

These changes are filtering through to Japan, too. A 2012 survey of 1,000 Japanese citizens by the British Embassy in Tokyo found that 74 percent of those who had visited the United Kingdom had a positive impression of British food. The subsequent launch of the embassy’s “Food is Great: A Taste of Britain” campaign has encouraged Japanese consumers, businesses and the media to take a fresh look at dated ideas about British cuisine. The campaign includes cooking lessons offered at ABC Cooking Studio, meals featured on Japan’s leading recipe site Cookpad, articles on British food in several issues of Ryori Tsushin magazine, as well as retail promotions and a “British food week” held at restaurants and hotels.

“While many Japanese still do not have a clear image of what British food is, I do think attitudes are changing,” says Akiko Yanagisawa, senior trade adviser at the British Embassy in Tokyo. “Of course this all takes time.”

For now, anyone seeking a bit of clarity about good British food would be well advised to try Bespoque (1-55-5 Higashinakano, Nakano-ku, Tokyo; 03-5386-0172; bespoque.exblog.jp), a tiny but miraculous “gastropub” on a quiet street outside Higashi-Nakano Station.

“I’m cooking here because of my life in London,” says Rei Nonoshita, who spent a year in England’s capital as a student in 1991. “I want to make a little piece of London (in Tokyo).”

Nonoshita makes everything in-house, from the sausages and smoked fish to the ketchup. Her cooking is undeniably British, with flavors recalling multicultural influences as well as traditional staples. An order of lightly seared tuna salad brings tablets of delicate, rosy flesh coated in warm spices from India. There’s a palate-cleansing chilled summer soup of bright tomato with an awakening hit of fresh ginger. Homemade thick-cut bacon is intensely smoky and scattered with flakes of sea salt. And the fish pie is exactly what it should be: fluffy and buttery mashed potatoes browned lightly with a crust on top and a soft middle of flaky cod, smoky salmon and a mouth-coating white cream sauce. Bespoque is completely full 30 minutes after I arrive — it’s easy to understand why.

When it comes to authentic British puddings, no one does them more delightfully than Stacey Ward at Mornington Crescent (Casa do Namiki 101, 2-14-3 Higashi Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-6441-0796; mornington-crescent.co.jp), a baking school that opens as a regular shop on designated “open baking days.” On these days, you can choose from 15 to 20 traditional kinds of classic British desserts and baked goods, including crumpets, Battenburg cakes, rhubarb crumble tarts, lemon drizzle cakes and Bramley apple pies, not to mention buttery shortbread, parkin gingerbread cakes, Welsh bara brith breads, and Scottish cranachan. You’ll need to get there quick though: Demand is as high for the products as it is for the classes.

“The last open bakery day had the longest line we’ve had, and we sold out in an hour and a half,” says Ward, who launched the business just over a year ago and says she has been overwhelmed by the positive response. “I do try to make sure everyone has a chance to sample something,” she says. “But it’s really the busiest we’ve ever been.”

Harajuku’s SW11 Kitchen (3F 4-26-27 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-6804-1456; www.sw11.biz) offers real nostalgia with home-cooked British dishes served in a laidback, modern setting. Notable is the warm potato salad, with its salty mackerel flakes, whole-grain mustard and thinly sliced red onion. Also the deep flavor of the roasted lamb, which more than stands up to the intense sweetness of the red currant, raisins and dates in its red wine reduction.

Each of these venues provides a new insight into the joys and flavors of classic British cooking. They go far beyond the much-touted fish and chips, which is really Britain’s national dish only in the sense that it says so in guidebooks.

Then again, perhaps these new approaches are not enough. “The palate works essentially from preconception. Its mind is always already made up,” Hayashi muses in “Igirisu wa Oishi.”

It can only be hoped that preconceptions in Japan are less rigid than he believes.

This is the final installment of “A Taste of Home.” Previous entries in the series can be viewed at www.japantimes.com.